Name-calling and off-color humor seems to be the gaffe du jour. Amidst racist jokes and crudely sexist remarks, it seems that many in this country could use a lesson in civility, respect, and accountability these days.
I am sure that we have all by now heard of the sexist and vulgar name-calling spewed by Rush Limbaugh against Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who testified before Congress that contraceptives should be covered by health insurance. Not only did Limbaugh call Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” but he also suggested that Fluke videotape herself having sex and “post the videos online so we can all watch.” Only after several sponsors pulled their ads from Limbaugh’s program did he reluctantly issue an apology to Fluke on his program this past Monday.
Rush Limbaugh is not the only public figure to have been guilty of spreading hateful comments recently. Just last week, Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull, a federal judge in Montana, apologized for forwarding an email containing a racist joke directed at President Obama. The forwarded email was a deliberate attack on President Obama’s race, including a joke that compared African Americans to animals and a personal message from Cebell that read: “Normally I don’t send or forward a lot of these, but even by my standards, it was a bit touching. I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine.”
Of course, individuals in positions of power or within the social spotlight like Judge Cebull and Rush Lumbaugh should know better than to make racial and vulgar slurs, and the comments should not have been made in the first place. The comments lack civility and respect, and they not only offend the person or group to which the comment was directed, but they also offend society as a whole by directing the debate away from the actual issues involved, and focusing, instead, on baseless and ignorant rhetoric that has nothing to do with the social or political issues at hand.
But, perhaps, even more striking than their lack of civility and respect, is the complete lack of accountability on the part of Judge Cebull and Rush Limbaugh. Sure, apologies and public statements were issued, but in order to be fully accountable for one’s actions, there must be a swift, sincere acknowledgement of one’s errors that is not spurred by political or financial pressures and is not filled with excuses, justifications, or further offensive remarks.
Unfortunately, both Judge Cebull’s and Rush Limbaugh’s apologies fail to indicate that they are holding themselves accountable for their actions. In Judge Cebull’s statement, he admitted that the email was racist, but stated that the email “wasn’t forwarded for that purpose. If anything, it was political.” By qualifying his actions, his statement not only reeks of a lack of sensitivity to racial issues, but attempts to justify his error in judgment under the veil of political discourse.
Similarly, Rush Limbaugh’s “apology” was replete with qualifiers, excuses, and additional insults. “Against my own instincts, against my own knowledge, against everything I know to be right and wrong, I descended to their level (the political left) when I used those two words to describe Sandra Fluke,” Limbaugh said. “And I feel very badly about that. I’ve always tried to maintain a very high degree of integrity and independence on this program.” By praising his own instincts and integrity, as well as insulting the political left, Limbaugh’s apology fails to demonstrate any amount of accountability. His statement lacks a straightforward, objective apology; one that could be achieved through a mere six words: “I was wrong. I am sorry.”
Public figures are not alone in their inadequate and veiled attempts at accountability. We have all offended someone or hurt a loved one at one time or another. We may try to excuse or justify our behavior, ignore the situation in hopes that the situation blows over, or offer insincere or delayed apologies. But in order to live within a family, community, or society that thrives on civility and respect, we must all hold ourselves fully accountable for our mistakes and misconduct. Accountability requires genuine atonement through a swift and sincere apology – whether public or personal, as the situation dictates – that does not include qualifiers, excuses, justifications, or further insults. More than just an apology, however, accountability must include personal accountability, as well, through an objective (and non-judgmental) examination of our thoughts, motives, and actions. Only by objectively exploring the reasons for our missteps and errors, can we truly learn from our mistakes and grow as individuals.